When you look at Orange parades and read about them it is difficult to remember that all these parades, which cause so much trouble, are religious.

They are intimately connected with all the Protestant churches. It is extraordinary that religious parades have to be marked so often with verbal aggression and even, as in the recent case of the Mater Hospital, physical violence.

One of the best – possibly the best – treatment of the Orange Order is a book by William Brown entitled ‘An Army With Banners – The Real Face of Orangeism’.

It was published last year by Beyond the Pale. It gives an excellent account of the history of the Order, its purpose and its effects on social, religious, political and economic life in Ireland.

A very gentle French woman called Simone Weil used to say we should accept history – all our history – as part of us and while we may not agree with everything our people did in the past, we recognise it, and admit that it is what made us what we are. The Orange Order was created at a time when it was considered quite all right to use religion for politics and politics for religion.

The hatred created historically among religious people was unbelievably severe and damaging.

To this day we still hear echoes of them. People were led to believe that their way of life, their worship of God, their lives even, were in danger if there should be any political change. At times the ways of life and the lives were in danger indeed, but most of the time they probably were not.

Our wars were largely about who would own land. Religion was often the excuse.

One famous Reformation and the opposition to it gave excuse for wars in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

That Reformation is often called the Protestant Reformation but was, in reality, a rebellion by Catholics against the takeover of their church by scoundrels.

The Orange Order is still concerned with who shall own land. As far as religion is concerned the Order is based firmly on the idea that God's chosen people can invade other people's territory and dominate those who live in it; the same biblical fundamentalist idea inspires organised land-holding in Irish border counties as it inspires George Bush's land-seizing crusade in the Middle East.

Nowadays the disputes which agitate the Orange Order involve ownership of streets and houses rather than great domains; villages rather than great cities.

When you compare the scale of the wars fought for ownership of thousands upon thousands of acres in Ireland with the present-day wars fought for control of streets or sections of small towns you realise how the scale of the problem of land seizure has changed.

So a big question now is whether the Orange Order can adjust itself in Ireland to unavoidable changes, learn how to keep its dignity and help create a new form of economics and government in which resources will be shared and thereby be enriched.

There is no doubt about William Brown's attitude or the attitude of some others of his tradition. For him the Union with Britain did indeed have value and the future union of people in Ireland working united along with Britain in a European Union is not only attractive but even bound to happen.

For the Orange Order then, the question becomes whether having recognised inevitable change it will create an opposition destined to be just a last bastion of something? Or will it join with others in a beginning of a new prosperity which everyone can share and enrich?

In the nineteen sixties a forward looking organisation of Young Unionists was practically submerged because those who could have supported them did not, largely through fear. They were looking for a form of government which would give fair play to people within the British union.

The Orange Order was one of the organisations which opposed them, the churches were among those who could have helped them and did not. In the nineteen sixties there was promise of progress in every organisation we had, including the Orange Order.

But, as we can see in books like An Army With Banners, the Orange Order like every other of our organisations was exploited by some very rich and powerful people, people who used both rich and poor for their own political and financial ends. And the Orange Order, like other organisations, found itself caught eventually in a corner from which it could not escape without tearing itself to pieces.

But the lesson is still there to learn, that people can pursue the idea of union in Ireland, or unity in Europe, or unity in Britain while keeping their dignity and recognising everyone else's. And no matter what our history has been, the important matter is that decent people exist today who do have the courage and the clearsightedness to see the good in everything while working to correct the bad in it.
This book by William Brown is one of the books that should be read – again and again.

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